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Referendums on the November ballot could cost Wisconsin taxpayers $1.4 billion

Posted: 10:18 AM, Oct 29, 2018
Updated: 2018-10-29 13:19:07-04
How taxpayers could owe $1.4B after elections
How taxpayers could owe $1.4B after elections
How taxpayers could owe $1.4B after elections

On November 6th, Wisconsin will not only be voting in the races for Governor and U.S. Senate. Taxpayers will also be asked to approve a staggering $1.4 billion dollars in new spending.

61 school districts placed 82 referendum questions on the November ballot. If they all pass, the total cost to taxpayers will be $1,432,304,560.

Seeking massive sums of new taxes in this election is not an aberration; it’s a trend. Since just 2015, Wisconsin voters have already approved more than $3.6 billion in additional school spending.

$84 million of that total belongs to the taxpayers in the Germantown School District. Improvements at every school in the District are now coming online, with Germantown High School set to open a new pool, performing arts center, and field house in January.

“We tried our best to get our finger on the pulse of, what did the community want,” explained School Board President Bob Soderberg. “We knew what we wanted, but we wanted to find out what did the community want.”

In 2016, voters approved the massive referendum agreeing to boost their own property taxes on average hundreds of dollars a year. Next week, many local school districts hope voters will be as kind. There are more than half a million dollars in referendum questions in Southeast Wisconsin alone, including $60 million in the Oak Creek/Franklin District, as well as $60 million dollar questions in Cedarburg and Waukesha.

“Vote Yes,” and “Vote No,” signs dot the landscape in Wauwatosa, where voters are being asked for nearly $125 million.

Among other improvements, the district is looking to replace four aging schools. The oldest on the list is Lincoln Elementary on 76th and Milwaukee. It was built in 1919.

“A lot of school districts are dealing with very old infrastructure,” explained Paul Nolette, Associate Professor of Political Science at Marquette University. Adding that we also tend to see more referenda when the economy is strong, Nolette predicts, “I think this trend has been growing and it will continue to grow… That is something that is part of the fabric of education politics in this state.”

But why can’t school districts simply budget for maintenance and growth? Why don’t they save up for big projects like you do at home?

In the mid 1990’s Wisconsin, and many other states, imposed revenue caps on local districts in an effort to curtail consistently escalating property taxes. Those limits prevent school districts from more gradually increasing taxes. When they have a big need like major infrastructure work, they have to go to the voters for approval.

Even generous taxpayers don’t always get what they want when voting yes. Angry students and parents turned up for a school board meeting in Racine earlier this year. Voters suggest Racine Unified School District promised to fix the swimming pool at Case High. Despite approving referenda in 2008 and 2014 for $144 million in new spending, the District never did fix the pool. It’s now been declared structurally unsound, and is shut down.

Nolette encourages voters to read the referendum questions carefully before making a choice. If the language does not specifically point to a particular project, the district is not legally bound to spend the

money on what voters feel they were promised. “Depending on how that’s worded,” Nolette explained, “it gives the locality either more or less wiggle room to use that money the way it sees fit.”

In Germantown, voters are getting what they’re paying for, even if in some cases the improvements are more want than need. “We did our research,” Board President Soderberg defended. “We conducted a lot of surveys, a lot of focus meetings. With all our constituents and we found that our community wanted this. So that’s why we have it.”

Soderberg added the referendum is drawing more residents, business, and students to the District. He says Germantown schools added 155 students this year, and have 400 open enrollment applications for students who want to come from outside the community.

Nolette says it’s hard to judge the overall impact of these huge increases in school spending on the larger Wisconsin economy. “I think you can look at it two ways,” he argued. “On the one hand, that is a pretty significant amount of taxes, tax raise, and that could potentially be a drag on the economy. On the other hand though, education is extremely important to the economy. I think anyone in business will say we need an educated workforce that will be able to fill the jobs of now and in the future. So there’s a real tension there about what this means for the economy.”

In recent years, the success rate of referenda is on the rise as well, now well over 50%. What that means for your bottom line is clear. If your local school district hasn’t already asked for a major referendum, the odds suggest it soon will and that it’s more likely than not, that it will pass.